“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.”
With so many crime movies floating around, particularly from the 90s, they can be hard to categorize or evaluate in respect to each other. Thus, I think the crime genre can be a nice case study to answer an important question when evaluating film: how do you make a standout film in an oversaturated genre? The answer probably has less to do with catering to the genre and more to do with rejecting or twisting it. Tarantino does this to crime movies with casual, realistic dialogue and a jarring cinematic vision. Scorsese does it with focused character development and a playful style. The Usual Suspects makes a few fun decisions along these lines, but it really makes it mark with plot. I reviewed Trainspotting recently, a film which wasn’t about plot at all, focusing on subject matter and the viewing experience. The Usual Suspects works in the opposite direction, with its primary hook being a captivating story that leaves you guessing from start to finish.
Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) is a con artist with cerebral palsy, called into a police lineup with a medley of other criminals for a false hijacking charge. Fed up with the police department, the gang ends up working together to coordinate a new heist under the instruction of mysterious crime lord Keyser Soze. The film uses the classic crime movie framing device in which the protagonist, Kint, confesses everything to the police and the film is primarily flashbacks. It’s a pretty standard way to convey a story such as this, but the real payoff is the mystery element to the film. Mainly, what’s the secret behind Keyser Soze? What are the police able to uncover? Who’s in the know? What are the implications of this heist? It’s a game of guess who that turns the standard crime drama into a memorable film through the use of an unreliable narrator and a convoluted, thrilling screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie.
If you know anything about this movie, you’re probably familiar that there’s a twist ending. There’s something powerful about an ending like this where, if done well, the movie escalates itself to greatness. This is essentially what M. Night Shyamalan is banking on with everything he pumps out (to mostly disappointing results). With The Usual Suspects, it’s really a curveball moment at the end that changes the way you watch the film forever. I think this is what a good twist ending is supposed to do, invite you to rewatch the movie and see how it all makes sense, making you feel silly for never catching on in the first place. Fight Club is another example of this. There are little signs all over the place directing you to the right answer, and it’s a real treat to see the film again knowing how it plays out. A bad twist ending feels like it comes out of nowhere, something wacky for shock value that isn’t based in the truth of the film. It’s an important distinction that can make these endings feel earned and powerful. Some have claimed that the twist for this movie is easy to predict, but I was certainly fooled on my first viewing. I’ve also heard talk that The Usual Suspects really invented this type of twist, and absolutely nobody in 1995 saw it coming, so I’d say it’s a success regardless.
The next greatest strength of The Usual Suspects is its acting. Kevin Spacey gives one of his earliest breakout roles, and it’s spectacular. Even in scenes where he doesn’t hold much power, you can’t take your eyes off him. As an actor, you can see the gears turning in his head, and he never lets the audience catch up with him or predict where all this is going. With any discussion of the film, you can’t miss mentioning the famous lineup scene as well. Gabriel Bryne, Stephen Baldwin, Benicio del Toro, and Kevin Pollak complement Spacey in a hilarious, diverse cast of actors as exemplified in this scene. Each man is instructed to read the line provided to him by the police for lineup identification purposes, and the take used in the film is an improvised, off-the-wall session where the actors joke around and break each other with outrageous line readings. It’s one of the most genuine moments in any film, and it works wonderfully for the goofy, bitter nature of the criminals.
With under a two hour runtime, this is a fun movie. It demands more of your attention than the standard crime film, but it’s well worth the payoff and moves along at a smooth pace for its entire duration. As far as my personal tastes, I’d still prefer a Pulp Fiction or a Goodfellas because I’m more into playful films, but I certainly admire what a treat The Usual Suspects is to watch. It’s thrilling, thought-provoking, and charming enough to earn it a place among the greats, something very few people would deny.
Films Left to Watch: 932